China goes to church

Seventy per cent of the world's Christmas decorations are produced in China, and many Chinese now view the festival as an unofficial holiday. On 25 December, in cities across the country, shopping malls are festooned with Christmas trees. In the new China, Christianity is a source of fascination, almost a craze, yet its precise nature remains a puzzle.There is a widespread conviction that it has something to do with modernity. University students sport silver crosses and join Bible groups. Smart new churches in Chinese cities are packed on Sundays. In a society going through an extraordinary transformation, with cars replacing bicycles, fast food replacing traditional snacks, individualism replacing loyalty to the party, religion fills a cultural and moral void.

Television soaps imported from South Korea, where 30 per cent of the population is Christian, offer a "Christian lifestyle with an Asian accent", which is as eagerly consumed and copied in China as Korean pop music and fashion. At the same time, American missionaries, employed as cheap teachers of English at Chinese universities since religious controls were relaxed in the 1980s, discreetly promote the religion.

It is hard to assess the extent of Christian belief in China, as the authorities ban independent surveys. Officially, there are five million baptised Catholics and 15 million Protestants. Vatican officials believe there are more than ten million Catholics, and the US state department quotes estimates for the Protestant population ranging from 30-90 million. These unofficial tallies suggest that between 2 and 7 per cent of China's population may be Christian. Whatever the numbers, the rise of Christianity goes against the grain of deeply cherished Chinese convictions and customs.

From the perspective of the China that is steeped in tradition, western religions are a compilation of convoluted, and essentially redundant, beliefs. A celebrated early 20th-century novel by Liu E, The Travels of Lao Ts'an, states: "Foreign sects . . . raise troops and make war continuously, killing men as though cutting hemp." To the enlightened mind, the only important precepts are to be unselfish and to do good. Religious practice in China has always mingled the great traditions with the worship of "secondary gods", who look after distinct aspects of daily existence. People pray for immediate and specific purposes, from a male baby to a salary rise. Despite the rise of Marxist atheism to the heights of ruling ideology, most people continued to worship the gods in secret.

Even ideologues are happy to seize a business opportunity. The state-owned Buddhist monastery in Putuo is now a leading site for "religious tourism". Taoist and Confucian temples are sending their monks and nuns on business management courses. Religion, like everything else in today's China, is adapting to capitalism. Liu E described Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism as "the signboards hung outside three shops. In reality they are all sellers of mixed provisions; they all sell fuel, rice, oil, salt . . ." He would have hardly been surprised by the cacophonous spiritual market place of today's China.